Kyle Orgera is on one end of the craft beer spectrum, he brews about 10 times a year. Now that his brother is in town, the two plan to brew more and have talked about opening a business.
Steve Padilla is on the other end of the spectrum. After finding the taste for craft beer while in school in Erie, Pa., he decide then that the Valley needed more options and more places to drink the specialty craft. In April, he opened Big River Brewing on Nolana in Pharr.
“It was literally a life-altering event and I just started brewing beer in Erie with a basic home brew kit that everyone starts on their kitchen stove,” Padilla said.
The craft beer market is growing nationally, and locally. Last year, just the volume share of craft beer in the beer production market was the highest percentage ever at 12.3 percent. The Rio Grande Valley has been helping to increase that volume especially over the past three or four years.
Craft breweries are popping up in the Valley as home-brewers move from hobbyists to career-minded. But the jump isn’t an easy one. There’s a huge difference in brewing up 50 gallons of your favorite ale at home and then jumping in head first with a five-barrel system where each vat can produce 155 gallons.
While that may sound like a lot, it still easily fits withing the definition of an American craft brewer, which is defined by the Brewers Association as “small, independent and traditional.” Small meaning producing six million barrels of beer or less, independent meaning less than 25 percent of the brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer and traditional signifying the majority of the alcohol volume in beers derives from traditional brewing ingredients.
Orgera is a Harlingen resident. He and his brother come from a family of cooks and restaurant owners, so cooking – even if it’s liquid – is something they are both drawn to. “I remember the first batch we did,” he said. “We had a boil over and it got into every nook and cranny – places we didn’t even think it could go into.”
Now Padilla has commercial grade equipment, can make 155 gallons of beer and has up to 120 five-gallon kegs in his cooler at any one time.
But the jump from home brewing to the big time is a large leap. There’s equipment and ingredient costs, licenses and permits and, in Padilla’s case, construction.
Ybarra didn’t have to worry about some of those issues. “I guess you can call me a cheapskate,” he said. “I used to hand out six packs of pumpkin ale or whatever I was into at the time for the holidays. The second year I did that, the owners asked if I would mind selling this stuff. It was just a matter of licensing and they applied and that was that.”
The craft brew market is a competitive market as breweries are becoming more and more popular. While the volume percentage was a 12.3 percent, the revenue was closer to 20 percent in 2016. But it’s not an easy field to jump into. There’s plenty of science and math behind all the lovely-colored refreshments. Ales take about 10-14 days to make while Lagers need three to six weeks to ferment to be in the best condition.
“You can have all the formulas and apps that will help you out,” Padilla said. “Nothing, thought, beats your sensory profile – taste your beer while you’re cooking it, while it’s fermenting and when it’s finished. Just like a chef, you need to taste your product all the way through the process.”
That process includes deciding what type of beer, what flavor, how much bitterness, what ingredients and much more. “You’re going to throw away some bad batches, that’s just the way this works,” Padilla said. “But I got a lot of opinions from friends. I like being innovative and tweaking the recipe, looking at new ingredients. It just took at one beer in Erie and I was hooked.”
Ybarra has been home-brewing since about 2008, so he had a head start on what started growing in popularity in about 2011. “All I had at the time was a stack of books,” he joked. Now, the Blue Onion in Weslaco circulates about eight different styles of beers but Ybarra said he has to cap per se. “I’ll throw in a one-off once in a while and enjoy having the liberty to doing that.”
Many of the craft beer businesses said they aren’t necessarily into the business of making a “mega brewery,” as Ybarra said. “That’s what I love about the spot I’m in. I don’t have to worry about diving into the business aspect too much. Of course I wouldn’t mind growing but I’m not going to lose sleep over that.”
June 2017 cover story by Henry Miller.